Wednesday 23 October 2013

On the Improvisation of Content

On a G+ post, the question was raised:
You're in the middle of a game and your players have just wandered into a part of the map that you didn't finish prepping for/didn't expect them to get to. What do you do? 
This can obviously be extended into a broader question: when players do something unexpected that you as the DM have not prepared for, what do you do?

This happens a lot if you aspire to run any game where players have agency. Since that basically applies to all games I run, I encounter that situation a lot. My answer is simply that I improvise. It's something I think I am quite good at; I'm used to winging things, and what I "wing" usually works out well. I put this down largely to a combination of two things - practice/experience at the table, and also my job; I teach at a university, so, not to put too fine a point on it, I'm used to being put on the spot by awkward questions and scenarios and coming up with answers off the cuff. Of course, if it's a question about contract law my answer won't be pulled completely from my nether regions, but nonetheless, I'm having to think on my feet, in front of people, on a daily basis. This is a transferable skill.

This also means I barely ever use random tables to generate content on the fly. My brain does a decent job on its own.

However, that's not a particularly useful observation: I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but it isn't very easy to explain the process (I've written about this before). As is often the case, it's just a combination of practice and, probably natural flair. But so what? As advice goes "practice harder and hope you have natural flair" is as banal as it gets.

That said, I do think there is one important thing that any GM can do if they want to be able to come up with things on the fly: a strong sense of theme combined with a strongly developed sense of setting.

First, theme. By this, I don't, it goes without saying, mean 'plot'. Rather, I mean here that you as the GM should have a strong idea of what kind of game you are running and also what kind of game has emerged over time through the combination of your ideas and those of the players. If you are clear about this, whatever you come up with on the fly will be informed by it and fit in with it more-or-less seamlessly. If, thematically, the game is very concerned with social interaction and complex networks of interpersonal relationships, as a GM you should be consciously and explicitly aware of that fact, so that what you improvise on the fly fits with it and does not jar either you or the players. That should be obvious, and undoubtedly most GMs do this implicitly.

Secondly, setting. When, as a GM, you set up and prepare your game - the NPCs, the maps, the socio-cultural background, the random encounter tables, everything of that nature - if all of those things have a coherence and reflect a certain level of vision on your part, then your off-the-cuff creations will, again, be informed by it. How to come up with this 'vision'? There is no harm at all in using the 25 words or less approach. When I first started to come up with Yoon-Suin, I jotted down these 25 words to describe what the setting was all about:
Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.
Everything has been based on, broadly, that ever since. Looking at it now, I might replace one or two of the words, but it still informs everything I create during prep/writing, and likewise informs the stuff I make up on the fly when I need to. This means that even when making things up as I go along when surprised by the actions of the players, I have a strong feel for the way the setting should be and that is like a thread holding everything together.


  1. Noisms, I've never felt closer to you than I feel right now, after reading this post.


    You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.

  2. I might add a corollary here, which is: familiarity with the system. Not necessarily system mastery (although that's where familiarity eventually leads), but enough comfort with the system that one can pull the required antagonists, items, set pieces, etc., that will facilitate the theme- and setting-appropriate improvisation.

    Again, this may seem to go without saying, but I've met far too many GMs in my time who feel that all they need is a good setting or story concept and don't have to really read the rulebook--they've played in a campaign or two with this system, that should be sufficient, right?

    If you're working off a scripted adventure (either published or written by oneself), it usually is, but as soon as you go off the beaten path you need to have at least some working knowledge of the system beyond what's directly applicable to what you prepped for in order to improvise effectively.

    1. Yes, I agree. I think like you I am getting more keen on the idea of just having a few systems that I know like the back of my hand and can kitbash into anything.

    2. I agree; I'm definitely a lot happier improvising with (pre 3e) D&D than other games, because I feel I have that system mastery.
      I recently started a Wilderlands campaign with B/X D&D; it's a great feeling knowing that the PCs can go anywhere on the setting map and I can run it, no problem. I have my B/X encounter & treasure tables, I have detailed hexes with various interesting stuff, and I have loads of ideas - standard D&D tropes, sword & planet tropes, sword & sorcery tropes. I can always get through a session and then prep for next week.
      With my 4e D&D Forgotten Realms campaign I'm more limited, basically if the PCs go too far off the expected, well I can hit them with a combat encounter and that'll take us to the end of the session so I can do more prep. But I don't have that feeling of mastery I get with the simpler B/X rules.

  3. Winging it is at the heart of my mega-dungeons, because I know it will never be finished. Most start as a rough sketch of general areas, essentially big circles marked with names such as cellars of the old king, flooded passages, irregular caverns, domain of the mushroom men, the lava tunnels, Uruk-a-go-go, the kobold king, the ant farm. etc... I'll usually put in a few hours of prep time a week when I have an active game, but this isn't always possible, nor is it easy to predict which path they'll take. So quite often it's drawn on the run, populated from my mind's grab bag,which is cluttered with my own ideas and plenty of pulp fiction.

    Now I admit, I like putting in time just sitting and designing things, but I long ago stopped meticulously finishing dungeons. I have a file cabinet filled with scenarios I thought I might run some day. I also have a file cabinet filled with rough sketches made on the fly, which I keep around mostly for nostalgia, as I know that I will never go back and flesh out the rest, as I might have deluded myself years ago. I have some great notebooks from a multiverse I once made, with a world for every tarot card. I started keeping them to remind players, and me ,of all the worlds they'd flipped through, as we often went through a half dozen in a day, most on the fly. (full disclosure, the third drawer is filled with old stuff I keep meaning to go through and mine for past ideas I never used.)

    These days when I get the urge to create, I still do so, but when I store my little creative nuts for winter, I tend to work on stuff that enhances seat of the pants flying. I did city maps,because people always head towards the city sooner or later. I still like to draw maps, even if it's just crude sketches in a notebook while hiking and will often jot down notes, not so much in a "let's describe this fashion," but more because an interesting idea occurred to me while doing something fairly boring and I like it enough to jot it down.

    I guess what it comes down to is that while I'm not adverse to gathering creative nuggets as they occur to me and keeping them against the day they're needed, I see no need to systematically compile tables for every eventuality, such as "what if the players want to become settlers." You can only automate your "system" so much, so why work on a system for randomly generating hedge rows or hex squares, when you can just as easily knock out a sketch of one?

    Product of this rambling? You're right, as long as you have a vague idea of what might be over the hill, you're OK. That said, it doesn't hurt to have something put aside when the well runs dry with two hours to go.

    1. One thing I've noticed about myself over the years is that I tend to forget the things I prep. So even when I have prepped adequately I find myself winging it because I can't remember anything and don't want to slow things down faffing around looking through my notes.

    2. Which is why sometimes detailed rule books are nice, because I can't remember which way we settled something last time.

      Oh, and here are some more images which you may or may not want to convert into sketches. Not precisely the galleries I wanted, but they are images which can be used copyright free with just a little conversion work. If you like the look of something, I likely have multiple shots with minor lighting variations.